The Mariners are averaging just over three million fans per season since the first year that Safeco Field was opened in 1999.
Understandably, the club finished among the league leaders in attendance from 2000-2003. It was a team that averaged nearly 100 wins per season over that span and made the postseason twice.
After a second consecutive year of post-break struggles in ’03, and a total collapse last season, one might wonder why attendance is still as high as it is.
If you ask those still attending games at the Safe this month, most will tell you that No. 51 has a lot to do with it.
So, Ichiro has an impact at the box office – no surprise. His record-breaking feats have dazzled fans at the Safe for five years now; and who doesn’t like to watch a great defensive outfielder with a cannon arm, who legs out infield hits at will in one at-bat, then hits a 95-mph fastball 400 feet in another?
Ichiro is a phenomenal athlete, and though he isn’t among the most conventional of physical talents, his speed and grace are often worth the price of admission - all by itself.
But what does Ichiro do for the Mariners on the field of play? Does he make the Mariners significantly better than they would be with the league-average leadoff hitter?
Is he that much better of a defensive player to make up for any offensive differences between he and the average right fielder?
The answer to both questions is the same: No.
Neither Ichiro’s career numbers, nor his 2005 output suggests he is nearly as “special” as his contract and many observers might suggest.
Ichiro stacks up pretty evenly with the rest of the league’s leadoff hitters – but he doesn’t run away with any statistical category – which he should for that kind of money and this kind of praise.
This season, Ichiro’s .297 batting average ranks fourth best in the league for leadoff bats, while his .344 on-base percentage ranks sixth. The soon-to-be 32-year-old ranks seventh in slugging percentage at .431 and sixth in OPS at .775 – again, just among leadoff hitters.
Ichiro’s career numbers look pretty shiny up against most No. 1 hitters in the American League. But, again, they do not blow anyone out of Commencement Bay and certainly don’t suggest that he’s one of the game’s best players, especially offensively.
The career .331 average Ichiro sports through games of September 29 would rank first overall versus the AL’s 13 other leadoff hitters. His .376 lifetime on-base percentage would rank third behind Derek Jeter’s ’05 OBP of .390, and Brian Roberts’ .387.
Slugging percentage, and therefore OPS (on-base plus slugging), aren’t quite as critical for a leadoff man. However, it is an underrated part of the game for the first hitter in the batting order. Extra-base ability gets the leadoff hitter into scoring position without any aid from his teammates, the defense, or the pitcher. After all, scoring runs is the object of the offensive lineup. Ichiro’s .441 career slugging percentage would rank him fourth among the AL’s 13 other leadoff men – using this season’s numbers for the league.
Pretty solid rankings, but hardly those of a superstar.
Ichiro gets buried even further if he’s tossed up against the league’s right fielders. He isn’t the prototypical right fielder offensively, so instead of ripping into Ichiro for the position he plays, let’s just say he doesn’t stack up offensively, and instead should probably be considered as a center fielder.
But guess what?
He doesn’t stack up all that great versus the AL’s center field crop either. At least not to the tune of 44 million snaps.
Ichiro’s career numbers look like a potential Hall of Fame center fielder’s. His .331 average and .376 OBP would rank first this season, while his slugging percentage would tie for seventh and his .817 OPS would rank right behind Grady Sizemore for tops in the league.
Ichiro’s 2005 performance, however, is not that of a star player, not in right field, center field, or the leadoff spot. Ichiro ranks third in average, fourth in OBP, ninth in slugging percentage and seventh in OPS, one point ahead of Detroit’s Craig Monroe. Pretty ordinary, really.
Ichiro would basically have been a league-average center fielder this season – offensively speaking. Acceptable for any club at that position, but for $11 million per season? Hardly worth it, if at all.
Ichiro might put a few rear ends in seats, but does he provide the organization with such a financial boost that he’s more valuable than a winning team ? Most would say he does not. Winning turns the entire roster into stars and the stars into superstars, at least in the minds of the faithful millions that flip the turnstiles every summer. Everybody loves a winner.
It’s likely that Ichiro’s 2006 season will return to something closer to his career numbers, and if the five-time all-star and former league MVP gets his game back to form, the Mariners can “put up” with his sub par offensive showing for a right fielder.
One contract rarely cripples a payroll the size of the Mariners’ the past decade, and Ichiro’s $11 million per season through 2007 is no different. But to warrant the superstar status in which he is paid, heralded and critically acclaimed by many, the 5-9, 170-pounder has to combine his ’05 power numbers (15 HR, 12 triples) with his previous seasons output - .384 OBP through ’04 with 100+ runs scored every season in the US.
But he is, and will continue to be, an overpaid ballplayer on a club that desperately needs to become more efficient financially.
The Mariners jumped through hoops to re-sign Ichiro and assist their star in avoiding arbitration – something Ichiro sees as a slap in the face if forced to endure the process.
If you don’t think four years and $44 million, plus incentives, is jumping through hoops? Wait until you see what those hoops are.
Ichiro received a $6 million signing bonus on top of his $5 million dollar salary for 2004, the first season of his new pact with the club. He is scheduled to receive $11 million per season through 2007.
In addition, he will receive $50,000 bonuses for each all-star game he is selected to, by way of fan vote, peer and coaches selection, or injury replacement.
He will also receive $50,000 for reaching 400 plate appearances in each of the four seasons as well as an additional $100,000 for reaching 500 and another $100,000 for reaching 600 – a number he should reach every season as the team’s leadoff hitter.
Ichiro will receive $200,000, instead of only $100,000, for reaching 500 and then 600 plate appearances in 2007, the final year of the contract.
Ichiro’s deal calls for the Mariners to pay for four round trip airline tickets per season from Seattle to Japan.
The M’s are financially responsible for paying for Ichiro’s interpreter and all of his expenses, his ground transportation to and from spring training, regular season and postseason games, both home and away, and a personal trainer, and all of his expenses.
Ichiro also receives a stipend to pay rent or a mortgage. He received $28,000 in 2004 and $29,000 this season – just to help him pay rent. As if he needed it with a robust salary of $11 million bucks, Ichiro will get another $30,000 in 2006 and $31,000 in 2007 for his housing allowances.
In April of 2005, Forbes Magazine estimated the club’s value at $415 million. It’s a good thing, too.
I asked a random Mariners fan this summer why he thought Ichiro was worth the money. Among several things already mentioned, he claimed that Ichiro’s 30-40 steals per season are rare and valuable, and his defense is the best in the league.
Most baseball geeks already know that steals are overrated, especially when many of them take place in situations where any value it might have had is thrown right out the window when the score of the game and the subsequent events are taken into consideration.
Stolen bases are not worthless, but the difference between Ichiro’s 37-steal per season average and the 24 steals averaged by the league’s other 13 leadoff hitters, is as negligible as the gap between Beavis and Butthead’s miniscule IQ’s.
Defense? Ichiro is certainly a fantastic defensive player with as much or more speed than any regular right fielder the game has ever seen, and his throwing arm is among the top few in all of baseball.
His range is a plus and he rarely makes a mistake out there in area 51. But how valuable is defense in right field? It’s not a premium defensive position like center field, catcher or either middle infield spot. Right field is one of the easier positions to play on the field because great defense is so much less necessary in right and left field, followed closely by first base.
How many games does Ichiro win with his glove? His Win Shares this season sir at 1.1, which according to Bill James’ formula, is worth a little more than one-third of a single victory over the course of 2005, to this point. In other words, Ichiro is defensively responsible for a third of one win out of the 68 that Seattle has amassed this summer.
Wow, says the wholly impressed audience, sarcastically.
In 2001, Ichiro tallied 1.5 defensive Win Shares, making his defense worth a half of a one win. Win Shares calculates the player’s credit for his team’s number of wins, so if a team had 70 wins, the entire club shares 210 win shares. Through Thursday’s games, the M’s are sharing 204 win shares. So 2001, when the M’s shared 348 Win Shares, Ichiro’s defense collected all of 1.5.
The league average in 2005 for right fielders is 1.44, defensively, or roughly a little less than one half of a victory.
While Ichiro is a fine right fielder, and probably good enough to play center field, his value as a Gold Glover doesn’t mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things.
Hitting is more valuable than glove work, especially at a corner outfield position.
So in the end, what is Ichiro’s impact on the M’s success on the field?
Considering all of the data available – not nearly enough.
Not enough to warrant his contract, not enough to warrant the overdose of accolades as one of the league’s best players, and certainly not enough to be counted on to carry a team to the promise land. And that is the goal, to get to and win the World Series, right?
If the Seattle Mariners wish to put on a ring anytime soon, Ichiro is going to have to play second fiddle to a better player – or third fiddle to two superior talents… and so on.
Jason A Churchill is the Executive Editor at InsidethePark.com and can be reached via e-mail at JasonAChurchill@InsideThePark.com